Praise with Caution

Does every performance deserve a standing ovation? It seems these days that every time I go to the theatre – children’s, high school, community, professional – someone always begins a standing ovation… and if that person happens to be in the front, then everyone else just stands up to be able to see over the standing person. If a show or a performance always receives that formerly elusive standing ovation, how does that affect their desire to improve the performance? Does it create a feeing of apathy or complacency?

I have always been very careful with praise – with my own children and my students. Other people gush with praise constantly, “You are my very favorite student!” “That was the best essay ever!” “You are the most wonderful singer I have ever heard!” I am just not that way. Ok, it may be just a personality deficiency or an overly critical nature, but I just feel that praise should be literal… and accurate. My logic is this: if the accolades I bestow upon another person or group or event or show or restaurant, etc. are literal and accurate, they will be honest and sincere. If I tell my students that they have done excellent work every time they turn in an assignment, how with they know what actual excellence looks like?

My personal philosophy on praise has been confirmed by Dr. Gwen Dewar’s 2008 article, “The Effects of Praise: What scientific studies reveal about the right way to praise kids.” She asserts that praise can actually undermine a child’s motivation and gives suggestions for the ways to praise kids with positive results:

• Be sincere and specific with your praise

• Praise kids only for traits they have the power to change

• Use descriptive praise that conveys realistic, attainable standards

• Be careful about praising kids for achievements that come easily

• Be careful about praising kids for doing what they already love to do

• Encourage kids to focus on mastering skills—not on comparing themselves to other

I really like that second one – “praise kids only for traits they have the power to change.” I’ve always wondered about people who brag about being tall… I actually said to someone who was doing that once, “Wow… you ARE tall… how long did you work on that? What an amazing accomplishment!” I know, sarcasm isn’t always appropriate, but I think he got the message.

As we think about meeting our new students and wanting to create a positive learning environment for them, remember that gushing with praise for every little thing they do may not be motivational – and they will see through your insincerity… just like a dog can sense fear. When praising others, especially our students, Be honest. Be accurate. Be specific.

“Thank you for turning your work in on time!  I appreciate how responsible you are!”

“Your new haircut is perfect for you!  Looks great!”

“I like those new glasses. What a great choice!”

“This is the best score you have earned yet!  Keep up the good work!”

“I enjoyed your use of creative verbs!”

“You completed every, single problem. What great effort!”

If you are honest, sincere, and specific with your praise and dispense it sparingly, it will mean so much more to the recipient…. and it will encourage that positive relationship we all want with our students.